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                                       politics + culture

Monday, May 02, 2005

a politics of coalition: sets

One of the things that has always frustrated me with Democratic politics is that we bang heads so much inside our coalition. I mean, it's almost like we don't get the meaning of the term "ally" or "coalition" in the first place.

Now, there are reasons for this...deep reasons actually. And the simplest and most direct response to this state of affairs would be for all of us to take as a basic start point that we are a broad and diverse coalition, and not paper over that fact. What I'd like to do here, towards that end, is to propose what I hope is a fresh approach to looking at coalition building and political organizing: a politics of coalition. To do this, at first, I'd like to look at our coalition like a mathmatical set. (Ok, I know this kind of mechanistic thing is not to everyone's taste....if what follows isn't you, no worries...feel free to skip this stuff.)

Let's say you could break, for simplicity's sake, all Democrats into three subsets: Urban Democrats, Suburban Democrats, and Rural Democrats. You could then represent each group like this:

Urban Democrats = UDs
Suburban Democrats = SDs
Rural Democrats = RDs

Now, in a given election, or on a given issue, Democrats as a whole would look to unify all of these voters in one set of voters. That set might look like this:

(UDs + SDs+ RDs)

That seems obvious enough. It also highlights some of the inherent difficulties that go into Democratic coalition building. You see, any time we want to talk about a broad issue, or run a state-wide or national campaign, we are essentially speaking to that whole set. In effect, what any Democrat who seeks to speak to our broad coalition is trying to do is to build a parentheses, to build a message that serves as an overarching rationale to bring the disparate groups of our coalition together. In terms of sets, that message might look like this:

(UDs + SDs+ RDs)

Now, this gets to the core of a pattern we've seen in previous election cycles. We know that we need to build this coalition to win, and we need EACH of the coalition members to be on board. But to do this, we tend to think as if we simply have to calibrate our message. Message becomes all we talk about, the 'focus' of our campaign.

Message building and framing are hard work. However, if you ask me, message alone is not the solution. We can't simply throw up brackets and win. We've learned that the hard way. Democratic unity, real coalition building, is about more than message. It's about the ties that bind the members of our coalition together, and how well we built those ties. It's about each group feeling at home inside the brackets of our coalition.. It is about understanding what it is that brings the people in our coalition together and what keeps us here. (One thing we need to do more of is actually physically meeting together ie. sitting in the same room.)

Whether our unity is driven by necessity, proximity, impending legislation, or ideology, for purposes of representing it in this schema, it looks like this:


From where I stand, we cannot underestimate the importance of unity, of doing the hard work of real coalition building. Simply put, for Democrats to reclaim our electoral majority in this country we need to win because of the strength and diversity of our coalition, not despite of it.

Our goal should not be to ERASE the distinctions between the members of our coalition. That is largely what the GOP has done within their party, and in an extremely negative, yet successful, manner. It 'works' for them; it actually builds their unity. That strategy doesn't much work for us. As the more diverse party, we cannot simply be united by negatives. A broad coalition needs more than that. You could argue that the 2004 election represents the most explicit expression of this reality yet.

Our goal, out of necessity and choice, should be to enhance the participation of our coalition members, not simply by working on our overall message but by doing the hard, "in the trenches" work of building party unity. We should not attempt to drown our differences with ideology or paper them over with message; indeed, we should to forge our differences into strengths by seeking the roots of our common cause. We need to learn to work together even when we stand apart so that we can present a united, yet diverse, face to our nation. In doing this, we make a bold claim for being the true majority party. We need an equation that looks like this, with each of its components carrying equal weight:

(UDs+SDs+RDs) = an electoral majority

Idealizing this kind of coalition building, is, to me, the essence of what Senator Paul Wellstone, like no other political leader in our lifetime, was about. Paul Wellstone's praxis of idealism tempered with pragmatism is at the core of our party's mission, and the path to our rebirth. Democratic unity must be driven by pragmatic necessity and energized by our ideals. That is the force that binds us together more than any message can. It is our job to uncover this essential unity: the core of what allows us to stand in solidarity with each other while respecting our differences. Simply put, Democratic unity wins elections.

Living up to this challenge is inherently hard to do. It means overcoming the same awkward issues we've been dealing with for decades: cultural divides, geography, "values." It is, however, in my view, the inevitable challenge facing Democratic politics in our generation. It's the political legacy we've inherited. We either solve this equation, and build our coalition in a way that wins...we either learn, finally, to deal with the reality and strength of our diversity...or we lose our rationale for existing as a party, a rationale that is the same for any political party: winning elections.

The end goal is that simple. And the whole world is watching.



  • I was struck by this comment in an online discussion with John Cassidy, who wrote an article in The New Yorker on the uber-powerful Grover Norquist: "The Democrats need to reach out to some of the groups that Norquist targets. As he points out, gun owners, people who don’t like paying taxes, and people of devout faith add up to more than sixty per cent of the voting population. If the Democrats completely write off these groups, their electoral prospects are poor."

    It's a scary comment. And reminded me of this post -- we might even say that these three categories correspond pretty closely to Urban (corporate tax-cutting interests); Suburban (people of devout faith) and Rural (gun owning). Three constituencies, in any case, which are all central to Republican power but are rarely shared by specific voters. And, certainly, the baseline issues for *each* of these groups is widely unpopular with the American people as a whole (say, privatizing Social Security; eliminating Roe/Terry Schiavo; anti -Brady Bill/waiting period laws).

    By Blogger awol, at 9:54 AM  

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